Director: Jacques Audiard
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
With films like The Revenant and others that take place in the modern day such as Hell or High Water or No Country for Old Men, the more realistic “anti-western” is certainly growing in popularity, possibly because the well for the more traditional-style westerns has run dry (until of course Quentin Tarantino comes up with new ideas), or possibly because realism is a route more so travelled in modern American cinema. I generally support this notion, but that doesn’t quite mean that all of them reach their full potential. French filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s new film The Sisters Brothers is certainly a decent film on all visual and performance fronts, but aspects of its script do leave something to be desired.
The title characters are Eli and Charlie Sisters, played expectantly wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, and the two are hitmen mercenaries at the whim of a barely-seen man known as the Commodore, played as basically a cameo role from Rutger Hauer. The Commodore is the true symbol of pure evil in this story, so it was wise to make him more of a shadowy presence lurking over the Sisters instead of an actual character. The Commodore wants the Sisters to track down a man indebted to him named Hermann Kermit Warm, played by Riz Ahmed, who is also being tracked by another man in the Commodore’s employ named John Morris, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. So the brothers embark on this journey, paralleling with that of Morris and Warm’s, with all their personalities and histories unraveling along the way. Warm and Morris form an unlikely bond over the prospects of collecting gold, and the brothers digress into themes of intimacy, alcoholism, and an abusive past. There are only so many gunfights, to the point that the Western genre here more so refers to the setting than that of the tropes. Nobody expected Audiard to make a Sergio Leone copycat film, and instead we have something much more humane.
As one would expect from this lineup, the acting in The Sisters Brothers is convincing and very genuine. Gyllenhaal shows a certain range the likes of which I was yet to see from him. He has a bizarre and everchanging relationship with that of Riz Ahmed’s character, a duo with chemistry I hadn’t seen since Nightcrawler, a chemistry I didn’t expect to see ever again. There isn’t a single character of the four that doesn’t fall ill to some capacity in the film, whether its to melancholy, an infection, or an amputation, and nothing about any of these depictions were anything short of mesmerizing to view. John C. Reilly should take up more roles like this and The Lobster; despite oftentimes being portrayed as a bumbling dope (Stepbrothers), he has genuine charisma as a character actor. Phoenix, to me, is a man who needs no introduction and consistently disappears into roles, partially due to his consistent decisions in picking the right scripts. This is one of the best-looking Westerns of the modern day. Cinematographer Benoit Debie always breathes life into the scenery and landscapes of his films, similar to what he did to cityscapes in Gaspar Noe films.
Despite this film having wonderful characters and a story to tell, its structure on a page-by-page basis does leave room for improvement. Within the first half-hour of the film, I actually found myself a bit disengaged with the film and felt it needed more character digressions to better humanize the title characters. It earns the investment along the way, but if the first third of the movie were its own beast, I wouldn’t consider it to be a memorable experience. And although the performances sell these characters to the audiences, I don’t always feel the dialogue does its part in doing so, which could be the damning effects of this being Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegan’s first English language film, not all the concepts and ideas translating perfectly to dialog. Ironically, I also found the film to drag on a bit in the final act, and found its ending to take an all-too-convenient route. I can see its justification based on other portions of the brothers’ dialogue in preceding scenes, but it felt much too simple considering all the characters went through.